JK Rowling has lost the plot.
Although considered a national treasure by most, recently her most committed fans have turned on her. They feel that she has lost control of her own narrative and left grave inconsistencies in her folklore.
I grew up reading the Harry Potter books. That young wizard started at Hogwarts around the same time that I started secondary school, and finished around the same time that I finished. His stories were an important part of my teenage years.
I began to suspect, however, that JK Rowling might struggle to live up to the hype when I saw how tightly she wanted to control her own stories. Fan fiction writers, she said, were all making grave errors. Other books published set in the same universe could not be trusted. Only she knew the true nature of what went on in the wizarding world.
The most intriguing case of her guarding these stories came when a fan asked her whether there were any Jews at Hogwarts. In 2014, she responded on Twitter with the name of one such student: “Anthony Goldstein, Ravenclaw, Jewish wizard.” She followed up with a clarification: “Anthony isn’t the first Jewish student, nor is he the only one. I just have reasons for knowing most about him!”
I was, of course, deeply interested in this Jewish Hogwarts student. As an avid reader, I wanted to know more about him, but as JK Rowling had made clear, I could not even imagine. Only she knew what happened to this character. I just had to wonder what her reasons were for knowing most about him. Did she teach him English in primary school then wistfully say goodbye to him as he left for a secret school elsewhere? Did she meet him as a young adult and have a summer-long affair with him on the Costa del Sol before they tragically had to part ways as he realised their worlds were not compatible? I could only imagine. Only JK knew.
In recent months, however, her fans have begun to doubt whether JK Rowling really knew everything in the wizarding world at all. They began to lose faith in her after she informed them that Harry Potter voted to remain in the EU referendum and that Dumbledore was a strong supporter of Israel. But the real clincher came in the recent film of Fantastic Beasts, when she inserted a character who, according to the legend she had established, was not yet born. In the same film, wizards also used spells in ways that contradicted her existing narrative.
Personally, I am not too bothered about all these inconsistencies. I think that what JK Rowling and her superfans really need is an introduction to the great Jewish craft of midrash. Midrash is the ultimate form of fan fiction. When you read a book as often as we read the Torah, you have to come up with new stories. Sometimes those stories fill in gaps. Sometimes they provide moral instruction or theological meaning. But, more than anything, midrash just makes a good story even better. It doesn’t matter whether the story is contradictory or whether the timelines don’t add up or whether impossible things happen. What matters is that you tell a good story.
This week’s parashah is a perfect example of great storytelling, and lends itself so well to midrash. In it, the Moabite king, Balak, calls on a great prophet, named Balaam, to go out and curse the Israelites. The Moabites think that, if Moses can do such great things with words, a soothsayer will be able to destroy the Israelites with words. Balaam initially declines, but the king is insistent. Balaam straddles his donkey and heads out.
Suddenly, in the middle of the road, an angel of G?d appears before Balaam and stops his donkey in her tracks. Balaam can’t see the angel, but the donkey can. The donkey stays firmly rooted to the spot, so he hits the donkey. The donkey squeezes in against the wall, crushing Balaam’s foot, so he hits her again. She lies down on the ground. He hits her again. The donkey opens her mouth and tells off Balaam for being so rude: ““What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times? Look, I am the donkey that you have been riding all along until this day! Is this how I normally behave?” Suddenly God opens Balaam’s eyes to the angel standing in front of him and Balaam realises that he has made several big mistakes.
As you can imagine, the rabbis had a whale of a time with this story. They told tales of the sorcery of Balak and Balaam. They invented complicated genealogies for all the characters. They elaborated on every part. But, to my mind, the best bit of all, is what they do with the donkey. This talking donkey, they say, was not just any old animal (otherwise we would be able to have conversations with all our pets) but was miraculously made on the sixth day of Creation. The donkey had once been owned by Adam, and later by Jacob, then passed on by Pharoah to the Moabites.
If you were concerned about donkeys being able to see angels, don’t worry. The darshans – the rabbis who wrote midrash – have got you covered. They explain that, in fact, all animals can see greater things than we can. But God forbids them from talking, otherwise they would embarrass us. And embarrass Balaam was exactly what his donkey did, over and over again.
The midrash fleshes out the conversation between Balaam and his donkey, standing in that ravine. Balaam shouts at the donkey: “You have made a mockery of me! If I had a sword with me, I’d kill you.” The donkey replies: “You can’t even kill me with a sword in your hand. How do you expect to go and kill an entire nation with just your mouth?” To hammer the point home, the rabbis let us know that the donkey speaks much better Hebrew than Balaam.
The donkey went on to embarrass Balaam in front of all of the elders of Moab. These officials asked him: “Why did a great prophet like you come on a donkey, and not on a horse?” He tried to inflate himself, saying: “I have a fancy saddlehorse, but it’s in the pasture, so I decided to bring my donkey, which I usually use for travelling.” The donkey interrupted him: “That’s not true! You have ridden me since the earliest days and you’ve treated me with as much affection as a man treats his wife!” The elders of Moab burst out laughing at Balaam. Then, to close the midrash, G?d kills the donkey, in case she embarrasses Balaam any more.
Now, I love this story. For Orthodox Jews, this great comedic tale came with the whole of the Torah as an oral tradition with Moses at Sinai. For academic students of rabbinic literature, we should look at this for what moral instruction or political meaning it adds to the original story. If we are honest with ourselves, this story probably isn’t that old and doesn’t really add that much. It’s just a great story. It’s just fun.
It doesn’t need to make sense or fit neatly into a particular box. For me, that’s what really gives it life. By experimenting with creative retellings like this, the original story itself is boosted. Out of one great story, a whole new world is created, in which even more things are made possible. If midrash teaches us anything about storytelling, it’s that a story only really takes hold when you completely lose the plot.
I gave this sermon at Mosaic Liberal on Saturday 13th July for Parashat Balak.
 Numbers 22:2-41
 Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews, p. 363
 Num 22:29
 Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews, p. 365
 Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews, p. 366